There are many questions around organ transplants, and bone marrow transplants. For one, the Torah tells us that we are not supposed to mutilate the body, or delay burial. We are also not supposed to put ourselves in unnecessary danger. Yet all of that is overridden by a single principle in Judaism: piku’ah nefesh – preserving life. Jews are obligated to help preserve life above almost everything else. Because of that, most Jewish sources agree that organ transplant and bone marrow transplant are not only acceptable but in fact are positive things.
Judaism holds that life is sacred. Saving a life is one of the highest virtues! Although there are concerns about what happens when someone gives a general consent to be an organ donor (organs might be used for medical research), I would argue that even organs used for medical research are in the service of saving lives.
Bone marrow transplants save lives. Saving lives is the greatest mitzvah, the greatest deed we can ever hope to achieve. We should be encouraging people to sign up in the bone marrow registry. We should encourage everyone who is old enough to give blood, because that too saves lives.
Since saving lives is the highest mitzvah, all other mitzvah opportunities are in second place. This means that if, because of donating an organ, the burial is delayed (it usually is delayed), that delay is not an issue, because saving life is more important.
This is an important question, because it brings out into the open the great life saving opportunities that did not exist many years ago. We have a unique chance to be life savers. There is nothing more holy than that.
What is the Jewish view on bone marrow transplants? What is the opinion on being a Jewish organ donor if Jews are supposed to be buried within 24 hours of death?
Up until a few decades ago, the notion that one’s tissues or organs could become part of another human being’s body and thereby help restore that other person’s health, was considered science fiction. Now, as we know, it is commonplace. But what does Judaism have to say about it?
To take your first question, just think: If, at little risk to your health, it would be possible to take bone marrow from your body to restore someone else’s health and well-being, could there be any doubt that this is praiseworthy?
There’s a very important principle in Jewish law known as “pikuach nefesh.” Pikuach nefesh is the mitzvah (religious obligation) to try to save another’s life, if at all possible. This is considered so important in our tradition that we may violate many other commandments, even very important ones like observing the Sabbath or keeping kosher, to fulfill it. Interestingly, pikuach nefesh originally referred to the act of removing rocks that have fallen on top of another person. This is an activity that would ordinarily be prohibited on Shabbat but which is required if it might save someone’s life. If it’s permissible to move rocks on Shabbat in order to save someone in danger, shouldn’t it be permissible to contribute bone marrow? Assuming that contributing your bone marrow is potentially life-saving, and assuming that there are no risk factors that would counsel your refraining from doing so, it is a highly worthy act to perform.
Yes, but what about organ transplants? As you suggest, Jewish law teaches us that the body should be buried soon after death. It’s ordinarily a violation of Jewish law (known as nivul ha-met, the “desecration of the dead”) to tamper with a body by, say, removing an organ. But if that act is done in order to save another’s life (or, by extension, restore that person’s health), then it is permissible. (In fact, it is hard to call it a “desecration” at all.) If, say, a person’s heart, lungs, kidney or liver can continue to live in the body of another human being, then they needn’t be buried with the dead body. Yes, if they are transplanted, those body parts will not be buried with the person in whom they originally resided; but by being transplanted they become part of a new person.
I have met people who have donated organs to others. It is clear to me how profound an act of hesed (lovingkindness) this is. I have also met people who have received organs donated by others. I know how grateful they can be. If it is within your power to donate organs to alleviate another’s suffering or prolong his or her life, I would urge you to consider doing so. If you have any doubts, just take a look at the rather moving video on the home page of the Halachic Organ Donor Society: http://www.hods.org .
What a great question! The answer to this question may range from one movement to the other so I’m going to give you the perspective of a Reform rabbi (because that’s what I am!). Judaism has a very important value called Pikkuach Nefesh, which is the value of saving a life. There is a Jewish teaching that if you save a life, it is as if you have saved the whole world. For that reason, Reform Judaism encourages both bone marrow transplants and being an organ donor. Even though it’s true that Jews are supposed to be buried as soon as possible, a delay of burial in order to allow for the life-saving possibilities of organ donation is allowed.